What is, what was and what might have been – first published 5 September 2014

It didn’t look like the best of walking days when I set out on 5 September 2014 but beggars can’t be choosers. The chill in the air and the grey sky made me wrap up in my padded jacket again and, at one point, I was even thinking of taking a hat and gloves. Of course, by the time I got to the top of the Little Hill I was feeling quite hot. This may have had something to do with a neighbour shouting down from the scaffolding outside his house, “you should be running not walking,” as I passed by.
“You’ve got me mixed up with my husband,” I laughed, “I never run.”
Even so I really marched it out up the steep hill and reached the top, breathless, hot and bothered.

5 September 2014

My original plan had been to walk down to the shore towards Hamble but the chill, which hit me again as soon as I cooled down from the hill climbing, and the flat grey skies changed my mind. The shore demands blue sky or moody dark clouds to make interesting photos and the breeze off the water is cool at the best of times. Instead I decided to walk over the New Bridge and head for The Common stopping at a few landmarks on the way.

Peartree Church was the first of those landmarks. The pretty little building is almost entirely obscured by trees from the road which seems a shame. Still, I noted that the leaves are beginning to turn and soon there will be better views through bare branches. Peering through the railings I looked at the church surrounded by old graves and thought, momentarily, about visiting Richard Parker’s grave again. I’ve told the tale before though so I passed on by and walked across the grass towards the bridge instead.

The wet grass soaked into my shoes as I walked and, when Commando Senior’s house came into view, I felt sad. In another lifetime Commando and I stood on this corner watching Commando Senior himself cross this same grass, bags of shopping in his hands. In my mind’s eye I could almost see him and taste the banana and walnut cake that followed.

Close to the Bridge passion fruit were hanging over a garden wall so I stopped to take a photo. One solitary flower remained and the rest of the plant was a mass of fruits from green to bright orange. One had fallen to the pavement so I picked it up and put it in my pocket. Maybe I’ll grow some.

Soon I was climbing the steps to the bridge and feeling warm again. Woolston was spread out below me. The old Cliff pub was still there but the floating bridge and the Vosper Thorneycroft shipyard, once the lifeblood of the place, are now gone for good. Houses and flats are springing up on the Vosper’s land at an alarming rate. From the water the sheer size of the site is surprising but I suppose it will soon be filled with new buildings.

Looking down Southampton Water I could see Fawley power station in the distance. On the other bank the modern houses of Ocean Village seem crowded in with hardly an inch between them. Central Bridge is still closed so I made my way down the steps to the underpass with a glance at the old Royal Albert Hotel and another thought of Commando Senior as I passed. This pub/hotel was built in 1853 and closed in the 1970’s. In 1975 it was almost demolished, which would have been a crying shame, but it is now a listed building and has been converted into flats.

The air of slight melancholy stayed with me as I passed Dukes Keep. Once upon a time I thought I’d spend the rest of my working life at the top of that building worrying about entertainers and two weekly turnarounds. A company restructure and a move to Leicestershire put paid to that dream though and I miss the excitement and the ship visits, not to mention the glorious sunsets from the penthouse window.

In the High Street I stopped off to pick up a take away coffee for old time’s sake. This used to be my normal lunchtime walk and my normal lunchtime treat back then. Besides, maybe the melancholy was a sign of caffeine deprivation. Sipping my skinny latte I walked on towards the Bargate. The flagstones under the arch have been worn by centuries of feet entering and leaving the town. Kings have passed this way as well as men on their way to execution.

Adding to those footsteps I passed through the arch and out of the old town walls. The outside of the gate is flanked by two lions. These are the oldest statues in Southampton and honour the tale of Sir Bevis of Hampton, the founder of the town. The legend has it that two lions killed Bevis’ friend Sir Boniface and trapped his true love the Lady Josian in a cave. As she was the virgin daughter of a king the lions couldn’t harm her but, after a fierce struggle, brave Bevis killed the lions and set her free. The original wooden lion statues were made in 1522 in honour of a visit by King Charles V of Spain. In 1743 they were replaced by the two lead lions which still guard the gate today.

These days the majority of the hustle and bustle of the city goes on in the Above Bar precinct which is actually outside the medieval town. People still walk through the arch of the Bargate but I wonder how many of them even stop to look at the lions or consider the history that has taken place outside that ancient gate? From the precinct the view is obliterated by modern phone boxes and a map of the town centre. This seems like a shame to me or, at the very least, bad planning.

As I left the Bargate behind the sun suddenly broke through the clouds and I realised I was no longer cold. In fact I was feeling a little too warm. Off came the jacket and I tied it around my waist. On the other side of the precinct I took a short detour to visit another place where I thought I’d spend the rest of my working life. Two Portland stone Georgian buildings with beautifully arched sash windows and wrought iron balconies on the first floor were once the offices of Dream Factory. In this very street John Everett Millais, pre-Raphaelite painter was born in 1829. There is a plaque at the end of the street but I’m not sure which house he was actually born in.

There was a time when I walked through those black doors into a world of sales reps and educational visits. Behind that arched window hotels were booked, excursions planned and, once in a while, I’d hop on a plane and spend a few days in a five star hotel with a group of rowdy travel agents. Morocco, Tunisia, The Azores, Madeira, Rhodes, Malta and Gibraltar weren’t just points on a map they were places I visited regularly and knew well. Then 9/11, terrorist threats and the recession went and spoiled it all, along with some very bad management.

The melancholy feeling was back and there was only one thing for it. What I needed was a walk through the parks. As luck would have it they were just across the road.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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